Jul 01

Free Bristol

Andrew McConnochie, 30 March 2008

Andrew McConnochie, 30 March 2008

To a packed (and hot) Rosalind Franklin room in At-Bristol, Chris Anderson (Editor of Wire, Author of Long Tail & now Free) gave a really good overview of the premise of the “Free” economy, Fremium, marginal costs and the impact of Moore’s Law on abundance & scarcity.  That was for around 25mins, he then did a Q&A session for 30 min before retiring to sign copies of his (not free) book.

I was lucky enough to ask a question which went loosely around, in this new economy of free, what is the value of geography (Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Bristol)? Chris answered partly by describing two companies he’s just launched. For one the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) came from MIT, for the other the CTO was online and after 6 months Chris discovered that he was a High School drop out with a self-taught knowledge of Arduino in Tijuana. Chris also talked a bit about choosing to live in a place and then finding the best talent for solving a problem, which probably isn’t in your company, City or probably even country.

On stage and in the couple minutes he spent outlining his answer, this made a degree of sense but something wasn’t quite right, and it was only on the walk home that I worked through some thoughts; hence this post (it goes on a bit, sorry).

Whilst the human brain is an undoubted marvel of flexibility and adaptability, in evolutionary terms its design is around 5,800 years old. The last major version change was about 1.5 million years ago when it tripled in size, and the last genetic upgrades were around 37,000 years ago and 5,800 years ago. However, given that the internet isn’t 50 years old yet (and probably under 30), it’s a wonder that our heads don’t just explode trying to cope.

As an aside, I’ve worked for the last few years with a company in Toronto and for a while helping them build a partnership with an organisation in Vancouver; headshifting across 8 time zones is disproportionately harder than just working a 20-hour day. Even funnier is what happens when you try to physically do what the internet allows virtually and travel around the world in 23 hours, as Jeremy Clarkson found out (with a slight cheat on the international dateline – YouTube from 8:05 onwards in particular).

The point is that we’ve evolved to be local, social creatures (see the Dunbar number) and it’s only by a design fluke that we can even begin to cope with the internet. Which brings me back to geography by way of Seth Godin, we like to be in a tribe of similar people. Of course tribes can be online but fundamentally we like to meet people in real life. Its no coincidence that most digital start-ups are around the Silicon Valley area; that’s where all the other digital start-ups are. If you want to be in movies you go to Hollywood; if you want to be in finance you go to London, etc. Of course there are thriving start-up, film and finance industries outside those locations <plug>not least Bristol which has been recognised as one of the most innovative cities globally by McKinsey & the World Economic Forum, over a quarter of the global wildlife film making originate out of Bristol and the finance sector is the largest in the UK outside London</plug>.

And perhaps that’s the value of local. You can build trusted relationships with all the key partners to build a successful business and still compete globally on the ideas & products that are generated.

In my new part-time role as Manager of Science City Bristol, I was talking this morning with Martin Coulthard about the developments of the Bristol Enterprise Network over the next few months. He was making the valid point that Science City Bristol doesn’t have a ‘neat’ strapline or twitter pitch. But I’m not sure it needs one. To get back to Chris again, in the world of free and virtually frictionless transactions, we need to find the added value of being in the Bristol / Bath city region and being into science. That might be (probably is) different for each of the many tribes in and around the area.

For a bit of fun I tried “what is a science city” as a search term; WolframAlpha was completely stumped, Google found most of the UK Science Cities but didn’t really provide an answer, and Bing didn’t really do much better. I can’t promise to develop a complete answer myself, but I do think there is some great added value to be delivered.

Thanks to Andrew Kelly for running this as part of the ongoing Festival of Ideas.

[Clarification: I booked and paid for this Festival of Ideas’s talk as Managing Partner of jbsh LLP, before discussions about being the Manager of Science City Bristol; I just happened to ask a question about geography in the new economy. These are my thoughts on Chris’ response.]

Apr 23

Business Support Simplification – an analysis

Uploaded on November 2, 2006 by Paul Mannix

Uploaded on November 2, 2006 by Paul Mannix

Is it possible for a Government to provide simple support to businesses?

Well the UK Government thinks it is, but recognises that it hasn’t been very good at the simple part. A few years ago some wag pointed out that there were over 3,000 different grants, programmes, schemes, advice networks, etc (nobody really knew the exact number), and that it was something of a mess. In the 2006 Budget the Government promised to reduce this to around 100. The latest plan is to get this down to 30.

As Dan Martin over at businesszone.co.uk more recently pointed out, this simple list of 30 has already become less simple.

As part of an application to the recent SWRDA post for Head of Business Innovation, I thought I’d revisit BSSP from a more strategic perspective. While I have dealt directly with several of the individual ‘products’ (as they’re called) and have been involved in various briefing and discussion around the rest, I’ve not formally reviewed the whole documentation associated with these changes.

Enter Nigel Legg at Katugas Lex. I emailed over three documents: Solutions for business: supporting success, The economic drivers of Government-funded business support: supporting analysis for ‘Solutions for business: supporting success’ and the South West Regional Development Agency’s Regional Economic Strategy. I asked Nigel to see what the key themes and constructs that emerged from within these three documents, but didn’t set any specific boundaries or expectations.

After a couple of days Nigel emailed to say he’d finished and invited me round for a presentation and discussion.

A note on the analysis method before getting into the findings. Each document was broken down and repeating words found, for each document the top 30 to 40 words were included in the supporting excel report. These words were then grouped to identify key themes with around 13 per document. Because of the way the statistics works, you don’t receive an absolute measure of thematic importance. For example, with the Economic Drivers the most connected theme was “business” with “market” being 73% as connected as “business” and “information” being 50% as connected as “business”. So you do get a very good internal feel for the focus and thrust of the document, Nigel also included a combined report of all three documents.

The economic drivers of Government-funded business support

The economic drivers of Government-funded business support

As you’d expect the dominant themes are around business, support, innovation, economics with a heavier weighting towards regional and south west for the SWRDA document. What was more interesting was what wasn’t there.

The market was clearly front and centre in the economic justification. Innovation is clearly linked to productivity and there’s a reasonable focus on benefits (through examples). Unfortunately “profit” or “finance” didn’t make the ranking for any of the documents.

Providing information is clearly seen as a benefit and service to inform the businesses understanding of the market and various support available. As I understand it this is a core function of the Business Links through their IDB (Infomation, Diagnosis & Brokerage).

Despite having a whole chapter on Skills (Chapter 3), they don’t show up as a key theme. The two main ‘products’ here are Train to Gain and the Manufacturing Advisory Service. Hidden away is a very interesting sounding service “Coaching for High Growth”.

The actual semanic map of the BSSP document wasn’t that surprising on its own. The main focus was around businesses and economic achievement, with a sizable grouping around Government Support, the schemes themselves and eligibility.

SWRDA Regional Economic Strategy

SWRDA Regional Economic Strategy

Its worth noting at the outset that the SWRDA Regional Economic Strategy goes much wider than business innovation or government support for businesses. There were quite sizable thematic groupings around people and future communities and their connection to the broad economy of the region. There was also consideration on the challenges and changes associated with growth.

The focus in general has moved away from a historical focus on employment toward productivity (at least as far as business is concerned). Interestingly, important and business are closely linked themes.

Possibly the most noticeable shift between the two maps is the disappearances of “market”, “innovation” and “enterprise” as top level themes.

Some thoughts

  • Personally I would have liked to have seen more evidence of developing market understanding and providing solutions to problems in the market.
  • I’d also have liked to see more emphasis on developing the higher skills for entrepreneurship and innovation (principally team building).
  • The emphasis on innovation & enterprise at the national level is excellent, as is the lack government focus on specific sectors (though this has already changed with the various sector bail-outs).
  • It would have been nice to see more innovation & enterprise focus in the SWRDA RES, but moving from an employment focus to productivity is a start
Mar 10

What’s so Social about Social Enterprise?

I know this is "internal only", I'm waiting for a public version I can replace it with.

I’m increasingly unconvinced by the “social enterprise” label as a distinct business model. Of the legal forms of incorporation only one has distinct “social features” (the CIC) but that’s not suitable for everyone. There are certainly many businesses trading for social improvement or with a strong social ethic running through them, just as there are businesses with strong design ethic, or engineering excellence, or any number of coherent passionate shared values.

As a branding mechanism I can see a value in being recognised as a “social enterprise”. It catches a very strong Zeitgeist and clearly flags your tribe, enabling people to make purchasing decisions.

Anyhow, on with the day. This was part of the ESRC‘s Festival of Science.

Session 1

The first session was with Katie Alcott (Frank Water), a great example of a social enterprise, and based in Bristol. It was refreshing that despite the obvious social aims and largely philanthropic ambitions, Katie had been quite level headed in starting Frank. She’d pulled together a team of 5 to launch the product, identified different legal forms of incorporation and decided that a trading company was the best way to achieve her aims.

Unfortunately there was still a bit of confusion between a Limited Company and Social Enterprise. Katie seemed to be suggesting that they were somehow different, when its actually down to the purpose and operation of the business. There are specific legal forms of incorporation that you can use (such as the CIC which was talked about in the break out session) but Frank are a Ltd with a Charitable arm.

What set them apart was their ethic and business focus. The main alternative Katie and Tom looked at was a charity but felt that this was akin to “begging” for money. Yes everyone got a warm fuzzy feeling at helping the less well off, but it wasn’t as sustainable as a business receiving revenue for a valued product or service.

Having launched the business, Katie has demonstrated very acute business development initative with their 1:200 campaign (something the other bottle water companies are following, always a good sign). They obviously have a good sense of marketing, a great design, a solid and building a tribe of followers, and are increasingly delivering the social change projects Katie wanted to.

Break Out

The break out session was to discuss what a Social Enterprise was. There isn’t a ‘template’ presented to us, we were given some examples from the Ashoka Foundation and asked to consider them. We felt that there had to be a business, rather than a charity or volunteer group, and that the principle purpose had to be some social benefit. But beyond that we struggled to come up with a binding definition, which was a recurring theme.

Session 2

The second sessions tried to ask “How do we know, as consumers & citizens, that we a dealing with a social enterprise?” and was led by June Burrough (Pierian Centre). June was very proud of her Social Enterprise Mark as it represented a line in the sand, a recognition but didn’t require her to change what she was doing. The Pierian Centre provide training & conference space in the middle of St Pauls. When she set up the centre, June was advised to take St Pauls off her address as “no on would go there for training”.

That was just buying into the prevailing social attitudes to the St Pauls area. June stuck to her guns and now has a thriving centre with executive training, homoeopathy and counselling (and a whole load more) all making use of her building. A large part of the social in her enterprise is the use of local providers for catering, training, etc. She also runs a sliding price scale so that those will less resource to pay make a smaller contribution.

The Centre is set up as a CIC so that the assets (the Grade 1 listed building) are returned to the community should the company cease trading.

Break Out

We came up with a long list of things you might want to know about in deciding if the company you were dealing with was a ‘social enteprise’ but were hampered by know really knowing enough about the Social Enterprise Mark. It also became clear that while some companies (like Frank Water) are happy to have their photos on the web and to be very ‘out there’, some other very valid social enterprises were less comfortable with that.

Session 3

Last up was Sam Robinson (eaga) asking about “What might we want to know about the human side of the benefits & changes that social enterprise promises to bring?”. eaga is quite an interesting business story outside any social enterprise context. Set up to disburse Government grants to improve home heating efficiency they quickly grew to be a large business, set up as a partnership (a la John Lewis Partnership) then floated retaining a controlling share within the Partnership Trust. With over 4,000 employees across half a dozen countries they’re not your usual little social.

It might have been Sam’s title (CSR Manager) that struck a slight discord but to me it was the disconnect between the core purpose of eaga, managing grants and installing energy efficiency systems, and the social aspects being discussed which were mainly in the sub-continent and around sanitation and education.

The far stronger story was the simple operation of eaga in efficiently using Government funds to implement energy efficiency and heating insulation in the less well of parts of the UK.

Sam acknowledged that they were using their muscle to encourage their supply chain to be more charitable. He also recognised the challeneges of just being a ‘CSR Ticket’ and integrating social enterprise into ethic of business. Whether you can do that as a plc I’m not sure. Interestingly they floated in June 2007 at a share price of 227.75 and steadily fell to 94.75 almost exactly a year later, they’re now back up around 130-140. There must be a lot of pressure on the senior management team to make up that loss in value.

Wrap up

There wasn’t really a wrap up session or final discussion. This is clearly an ongoing series of discussions and debates.

The evolving Social Enterprise Mark piloted in the South West by RISE seems like a clear encapsulation of “social enterprise” in an easy to present format that most people will agree with. The challenge will be to communicate this quickly enough, to a large enough audience that it gains currency, without exceeding expectations on what social enterprises can do.

Feb 24

OpenCoffee Bristol demo sessions

<This is a cross post from OpenCoffee Bristol, Bristol companies demo to packed room>

Change of venue and format brought out the regulars and new faces for this morning’s OpenCoffee Club meeting. Mariama Njie welcomed us all with fresh coffee, tea and chocolate cookies to UWE Ventures’ new business incubation space in Bush House right on the harbourside in Bristol. There was plenty of time for folk to have a good look around and catch up with each other before squeezing into the main Board Room for the company demo’s.

Test and Verification Solutions

First up was Michael Bartley from Test & Verification Solutions. Michael introduced us to software testing and code validation. His expertise was in providing clients with access to reduced cost and flexible resources at this specific point in their software development cycle. Michael works closely between clients and partners (mainly in India) to build find the right out source partner (rather than a body-shop as Sam Machin described it). The right partner was one that understood the application domain as well as the technology and could provide a high quality of service with good knowledge management.

After software testing, Ed Ross introduced his solution to oversized email attachments and overwhelming spam. Tonsho provides both services in a single subscription. Attachments of up to 100MB are handled through normal SMTP from your email to the Tonsho servers, the recipient receives a friendly email with a link to the file that they download (again through SMTP). Whilst all this is going on, Tonsho also offers a “challenge – response” solution to spam. Email that fails a spam filter triggers a challenge to solve a capatcha, if successful the email is automatically moved to the inbox and the sender added to the users white list. Ed was using Adsense and limited additional marketing, some good write-ups on About.com and word of mouth from existing users to grow the service. Basic accounts are free, added storage and features are available from Pro, and Enterprise accounts. Ed also offers a “Photographers” version that includes a photo gallery with watermarking.

Last up, but certainly not least, was Nigel Legg with a live demo of his latest enterprise Katugas Social Media Monitoring. Building on his experience coding and analysing free text responses on market surveys, Nigel is now delivering detailed analysis of a companies social media profile. Using software from Radian6 in Canada, Nigel pulled up a series of queries for Open Coffee and topics that might be talked about. Turns out the iPhone is very popular with nearly 500k mentions in the last 30 days. The interesting part was when Nigel pulled up individual mentions, and began grading them for sentiment (positive to negative on 5 point scale). He then pulled up the key influencers based on number of articles, comments, links, etc. A really powerful analysis of a business’s online presence and valuable tool for monitoring brand perception. With the ability to report daily, weekly and monthly this is a fantastic addition to Bristol’s business environment.

After the semi-formal presentations folks carried on discussions until gone 10am. Mariama did an excellent job supplying coffee throughout and lots of new connections were started.

Thanks again to the presenters, attendees and UWE Ventures.

The next OpenCoffee Bristol will be on 10 March at Starbucks on Park St. The next demo session will be in a month or two (drop me an email or comment if you’d like to present).

Feb 03

Of gifts and giving

Uploaded on June 1, 2006 by Poo Bar

Uploaded on June 1, 2006 by Poo Bar

Name a bizarre gift you received. Who gave it to you? What was the occasion? Did you regift it?

Blogging, twittering, and the immensely low barrier to communications that these technologies provide is the bizarre gift I’d like to mention in this Plinky prompt.

They’ve revolutionised the world of business development. The photo on the right was one of the first that I took with my HTC Universal and blogged from my phone. It was more to see what I could do from a mobile platform than any great social commentary on the redevelopment of Bristol.

Around the same time I mucked about on del.icio.us, flicker and set up a MySpace profile. I was trying to work out how I could use these technologies and how they would inform the business models for innovations in educational technology.

I’d had a website since mid-1997 when I was working on an European funded research project on business process change and we used some clunky (even by late-90’s standards) html to navigate the various options. I merrily coded lots of roll-overs, image maps but did have the good sense to steer clear of animated gif’s. This isn’t a history lesson so I’ll gloss over the rise of the freemium internet, suffice to say it was of interest but not a serious tool I was using.

Fast forward to June 2007 and the formation of jbsh LLP. Having always tried to link people up and join networks from within whichever organisation I worked for at the time, I now had the opportunity to let rip and make that a larger part of what I was about. This blog, LinkedIn and Twitter have been immense gifts to undertaking this as is GReader‘s shared items feature. I haven’t quite leapt into Friendfeed in the same way but might do if it proves valuable to what I do.

So I hope I’ve re-gifted by reaching out and connecting interesting people that want to grow the Bristol entrepreneurial ecosystem.  This has partly been through relaunching OpenCoffee Bristol (using Twitter, Upcoming, LinkedIn, Facebook, and most recently it’s own website).

I’m an engineer, I build things. At the moment I’m building businesses, networks and partnerships.

What are you gifting back?

Uploaded on February 3, 2009 by Poo Bar

Uploaded on February 3, 2009 by Poo Bar

And the office block being dismantled in June 2006? Its due to reopen as a Radisson SAS hotel “early” 2009.